Will you help us to save Palawan from the Oil Palm rush?

Will you help us to save Palawan from the Oil Palm rush?

Open Letter to ‘Mam Gina’, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Regina Lopez
Pala’wan people are concerned about the havoc that oil palm plantations will bring to their present and future generations
Support our journalism. Become a Patron!
March 10, 2017

Dear ‘Mam Gina’,

When President Duterte came into power, he made it clear that he was going to challenge the economic and political status quo of our country, putting it upside-down. When he finally appointed you as DENR secretary and Raphael Mariano [the chairman of the farmers’ militant group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)] as DAR (Department of Agrarian Reform) Secretary, we thought that Mr. President was really fulfilling his promises through concrete actions. As a result, our indigenous people saw their hopes rising and they felt that, finally, Duterte’s presidency might have brought them peace, prosperity and justice.

But their hopes are falling apart, now that Mr. President has identified oil palm development as the key industry that, according to him, will boost the country’s economy. He has indicated both Palawan and Mindanao as the new frontiers for oil palm expansion. By inviting Malaysian oil palm investors in Palawan, Pres. Duterte is doing exactly the opposite of what he promised to do: ‘never to harm the country’s environment and the local communities’.

As Malaysian and other oil palm investors began searching for ‘vacant land’ here in Palawan, we saw the Aquino legacy coming back. One more time, our country is becoming an open ground for unscrupulous foreign investors. This is exactly what Aquino did, and it is discouraging to see our current President repeating the same mistakes, while embracing an export-based neo-liberal model. The massive oil palm development being proposed by Duerte’s administration will have grave implications not only on the way of life of indigenous peoples, but on the country’s environment as a whole, as well on the lives of future generations of Filipinos. We can say this loudly, because many of us have already witnessed the increasing impoverishment of our people and the progressive deterioration of our forest and natural resources, because of oil palm development.

Forest clearing by Agumil company for oil palm expansion in Barangay Sandoval (Municipality of Bataraza)

If Pres. Duterte administration has been able to crackdown mining oligarchies, why should he allow oil palm oligarchies to go ahead with their plans? Is there any difference between ‘mining’ and ‘oil palm’ oligarchies? Perhaps, is the former ‘malignant’ and the latter ‘benignant’? Indeed, they are part and parcel of the same ‘metastasis’ affecting our current World and that feeds on the assumption that ‘natural resources are unlimited’ and that both ‘nature’ and traditional communities can be sacrificed for the sake of a higher national GDP (Gross Domestic Product). We believe that mining and large-scale agribusinesses are exactly the two sides of the same coin. A coin that has not been forged for the benefit of our rural communities, but rather to ‘fatten’ the foreign market and bring richness to foreign investors, local tycoons and the same oligarchies that Pres. Duterte intends, so energetically, to dismantle. It must be made clear: palm oil is mainly produced as a commodity for foreign export and not for local consumption. And even if it was produced for our own people, we would still prefer our coconut oil that is much more tastier and healthier and does not contain the dangerous contaminants and cancerous substances found in palm oil. A recent study by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has already assessed risks of palm oil on public health.

While it is true that the mining industry has been responsible for the worst environmental disasters and persisting social unrest in our country (and elsewhere), a similar and even stronger argument could be made with reference to oil palm expansion. If Mr. President really cares for the environment and for his people, he should also ‘declare a war’ against oligarchs involved in large-scale plantations, rather than inviting them to bring their dirty business in our beautiful, but ecologically fragile nation. To halt mining and allow oil palm expansion, instead, is – according to us – an evident contradiction that sheds a dark light on Duterte’s newly acquired reputation of being ‘the greenest President the country has ever had since former President Cory Aquino’.

‘Mam Gina’, we totally understand that you owe a debt to President Duterte, for having appointed you as DENR, but this should not serve as a justification for you to turn a blind eye on the enormous ecological threats and escalating social unrest that oil palm development has brought to Palawan and elsewhere in the Philippines. Why should we allow this totally unsustainable and socially de-stabilizing development ‘model’ to continue?

It would be enough for you to look at the clear-cutting of precious lowland forest here in Palawan by Agumil Philippine Inc., San Andres and CAVDEAL to get a clear idea of what oil palm industry can do and is doing to our beloved land and to the hundreds of indigenous and rural communities that have cared for it, over generations.

An indigenous Pala’wan resident of Barangay Sarong (Municipality of Bataraza) showing the destruction of his community forest by Agumil Company

Over the years, we have documented both the ecological and socio-economic impact of oil palm development in Palawan, and all these studies and documents are available online.

Some of them have already been submitted and protocolled to your good office on July 28, 2016 together with a petition signed by more than 4,200 farmers and indigenous people calling for a moratorium on oil palm expansion. Will you pay attention to these voices and to the outcry of the victims of oil palm expansion, in the same way you did for the victims of mining?

Right now, in Palawan, as we write this letter, pressure from agribusiness firms is increasing at an alarming rate and we are rushing off our feet to keep up with this enormous pressure and to respond to the call of our indigenous communities that are asking for help. Oil palm expansion is on going, but we have not seen you, ‘Mam Gina’, taking a stand against this or even expressing the least murmur of dissent. While mining activities are now being closely monitored and controlled, thanks to your admirable and uncompromising leadership in DENR, oil palm expansion – unfortunately – is not. Why is this so?

We.d like to point out that extra-judicial killing committed against indigenous peoples in Mindanao have also been perpetrated in relation to the growing opposition against oil palm expansion. This is certainly the case of Gilbert Paborada, the chairperson of Pangalasag – the community-based IP organization in Opol town (Misamis Oriental) resisting the oil palm expansion of A. Brown company. He was murdered on October 3, 2012. As of now, the indigenous peoples (Higaonons) and peasants of Opol, in Misamis Oriental, are struggling against land grabbing resulting from a monoculture oil palm plantation, promoted by the above mentioned company. Since the beginning of the plantation’s operations, Higaonons and other villagers have experienced severe human rights violations such as forced eviction, illegal arrest, strafing and harassment.

According to Mr. President, oil palm development can play a significant role in poverty eradication and it will bring more jobs in the rural areas and prosperity for the people. But, this is not the lesson we have learned from existing oil palm development here in Palawan, as well as in Mindanao. And – more importantly – it is not what rural and indigenous communities (their federations and local NGOS) from neighboring Sabah, Sarawak, Kalimantan, have told us. Forest conversion of Borneo’s forest, also caused by the establishment of industrial oil palm plantations, has been the subject of many studies, such as a recent scholarly article: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0101654

A Pala’wan father and son in their upland rice field. Indigenous cultivated fields are often converted into oil palm plantations

It is well known that, compared to other cash crops oil palms plantations requires little man-labor. In the year 2009, in the Municipality of Espanola of Palawan (Barangay Iraray), only 25 community members were employed (part-time) in a 150 ha oil palm plantation site. This gives an employment estimate that is six fold lower compared to that proposed by the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) (e.g. one worker per hectare).

There is no doubt, from a plane or a helicopter, oil palms look ‘green’, indeed their color is green, but they are not ‘green’ at all! Based on empirical records, for a ton of oil processed, about 2.5 tons of effluents are discharged. Biodiversity does not thrive in these ‘green deserts’ rather it is totally eradicated when soils and pre-existing vegetation are bulldozed to give space to one single species (oil palm – Elaeis guineensis). In the process of land conversion customary indigenous resources (NTFPs, medicinal plants, etc.), on which traditional communities depend for their lives, are completely washed-away.

Worse of all, oil palm plantations need a consistent amount of dangerous pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The productive cycle of oil palms is between 25/30 years. By this time, land being converted into oil palms is likely to have been rendered infertile by the continuous use of chemicals, and depletion of nutrients. Hence the restoration of such land into productive cropland may represent an impossible task. This is also because of the widespread root system of oil palms, which does not only colonize the ground’s surface but also its inners layers. Especially for small landholders lacking financial capital, it is impossible to revert such lands into cultivated fields.

Oil palm plantations also require a huge amount of water that is taken from local rivers, often with adverse consequences on local community needs and traditional agriculture. They also generates a huge amount of waste, which is partially stocked in large putrefying open-air basins, until these become full and the poisonous substance leaks out into rivers, contaminating fresh water sources. They displace indigenous peoples from their ancestral domains, and increase the indebtedness of farmers towards companies and financing banks (e.g. the Land Bank of the Philippines). In oil palm plantations, working conditions are generally exploitative and, very commonly, no benefits or any form of insurance is provided by the companies to their workers. Again, these are not theoretical speculations, but it is exactly what our people have experienced so far. ‘Mam Gina’ we are more than willing to tour you around southern Palawan to show you what oil palm development has done to our precious island. Surely, this is not something you would be able to detect simply by flying over the island with an airplane or a helicopter.

One really needs to put his/her own feet on the plantations’ ground, to see the ecological damage that these have caused, and talk to the local people who reside in such areas, in order to understand the havoc that oil palm plantations have brought to their lives.

Large forest trees being felled down to give way for oil palm plantations (Barangay Sandoval – Bataraza)

For all the above mentioned reasons, we are kindly requesting you ‘Mam Gina’, not only by virtue of your position as DENR Secretary but as a close and trusted ally, to ensure a strict environmental scrutiny of all existing oil palm plantations rather than ‘no-red tapes’ as the Philippine Palm Oil Development Council Inc. (PPDCI) and oil palm investors are requesting.

In our opinion, what DENR should do, is to place all environmental compliance certificates (ECCs) of existing oil palm companies to strict auditing and reviewing. All those oil palm companies that have illegally cleared land and forest should be stopped immediately. In short, DENR should not hesitate to shut down all oil palm operations and other forms of agribusiness that are involved in land grabbing and that have been found to have violated environmental, health and safety laws and regulations, as well as indigenous peoples’ right, as stated in the IPRA law. ‘Mam Gina’, what you have done, so successfully, with reference to mining should be replicated for oil palm plantations and agribusiness enterprises. Are we asking too much?

“It is my moral obligation to provide available and affordable food for my people”. This is what Duterte declared at the beginning of his presidency. If he wishes to remain faithful to his mandate, he should then push for an agrarian reform that see farmers making a decent living by producing healthy crops, rather than promoting a system where corporations, traders and merchants are those controlling and manipulating the food supply chain to the disadvantage of the rural household economy. Oil palm development is exactly this: an agricultural model that is in antithesis with food sovereignty and self-sufficiency and that contributes to climate change and the privatization of natural resources by large corporations whereby the former are being taken away from traditional users and put under the control of big companies. If rural poverty is to be seriously addressed, land should be used for food security, not for the massive export of cash crops.

While the State has remained silence on the oil palm issue, we had no alternative than bringing our grievances up to the international level. An online petition campaign has just been launched and will be circulated widely to stop oil palm expansion in Palawan and Mindanao.

While the international community is now responding with much solidarity and thousands of signatures being collected, we do hope that Mr. President, DENR and other concerned government departments will finally come up with a concerted and resolute move to halt oil palm development.

We know that you have the competence, stamina, courage and integrity to take the right decision against oil palm expansion. Will you stand, this time too, on the side of the victims and in defense of our land?

Very truly yours,

The CALG Board

Coalition against Land Grabbing (CALG) – Philippines

We're fighting for our lives

Indigenous Peoples are putting their bodies on the line and it's our responsibility to make sure you know why. That takes time, expertise and resources - and we're up against a constant tide of misinformation and distorted coverage. By supporting IC you're empowering the kind of journalism we need, at the moment we need it most.

independent uncompromising indigenous
Except where otherwise noted, articles on this website are licensed under a Creative Commons License